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Original Title:

Japan 2007

Action, Drama

Shunichi Nagasaki

Akihito Yagi
Tatsuya Naka
Yuji Suzuki
Arashi Fukasawa
Kenji Anan
Takayasu Komiya
Shinya Owada
Yosuke Natsuki
Taro Suwa
Masahiro Sudo
Kimika Yoshino

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Black Belt

Story: The three Karate disciples Taikan (Tatsuya Naka), Choei (Yuji Suzuki) and Giryu (Akihito Yagi) learn the art of self defence from their master at a secluded school. One day, a division of the Japanese army comes to the dojo and wants to shut it down. Hot-tempered Taikan gets into a fight with the soldiers, but the Karate-master Eiken (Shinya Ohwada) wants that prudent disciple Giryu faces the commander of the unit. Giryu wins without even having to perform one single attack, just as he was taught by his master. Shortly thereafter, Eiken passes away, though, and the disciples are now on their own. The Japanese army visits the dojo once again, but this time, impressed by the skills of the disciples, wants them to accomany them to their base and teach them. Taikan agrees on behalf of everyone, but on their way Giryu is attacked by the children of the defeated commander, who want to revenge their father's death since he commited suicide because he lost his honor. Giryu gets hurt and falls down a slope. However, he is still alive and is taken care of by a poor family. This family has a lot of debt to repay, so that in the end the father has no other choice, but to sell his daughter. Giryu isn't sure if he should intervene or not, and what would be in accordance with the teachings of his master. Yet, it seems inevitable that the fighters Taikan, who is now working for the army, and Giryu have to face each other one day.

Review: There is quite a number of films dealing with the topic of martial arts and the path to self restraint and inner peace, nowadays. "Black Belt" focuses on this subject, too, and does so in a very simplistic and allegorical manner, which almost bestows something artificially educational upon the movie. Sadly, that's a bit irritating at times as the lessons we are supposed to learn are too obviously presented and not really hidden away. No doubt, the simplicity and directness of the film may have its own kind of appeal, and most likely this is also supposed to serve as some parallel to the art of Karate itself, but it nonetheless proves to be problematic that the movie's teachings are read slowly letter by letter without needing us to do our own thinking. Nevertheless, or maybe just because of that, we get the feeling as if "Black Belt" tries to work at the core of martial arts without any need of unnecessary flashiness.

Taikan doesn't think much of the teaching of his master. His master teaches that Karate should only be used to ward off attacks, never to attack yourself or kick. Taikan, however, has his own opinion about this topic which is completely different from what he has learnt. He prefers to knock out his enemies with an attack that hits the mark right away. It's evident from the very beginning that Taikan has the role of the disciple who has gone astray. Giryu on the other hand is very shy, introverted and filled with a certain kind of pureness, which also doesn't feel natural. Can such a person really exist? The two disciples seem to embody Yin and Yang. Darkness is without a doubt one part of Taikan, and even though he attracts the resentment of the viewer with his actions, there is still a little glimpse of good to be found in him, which we can make out during some rare moments. Tatsuya Naka deserves some special words of praise for this effort. Giryu, however, only seems to have good in him, which makes him fail over and over again.

Giryu has to learn that even his good deeds or actions can create evil. He spared the commander of the army, for example, but the commander couldn't live on with the fact that he lost his honor in this fight, which indirectly makes Giryu a murderer, after all, and the revenge of his now fatherless children wasn't a long time in coming. The story of the family that give him shelter and the father who has to sell his own daughter, is another example. Giryu wouldn't have any problem stopping the scoundrels taking away the daughter, but he didn't do so. The little son of the family confronts him with the fact that he is nothing but a coward, and in a way he actually is. But what is he supposed to do? What is the right path for him? What did his master want to teach him? Giryu has to realize that he has to accept one small part of darkness, too, in order to be able to be good in his heart. Martial arts are strongly influenced by buddhism and therefore it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are one or two valuable lessons you can take with you.

All three students are played by individuals who have never acted in a movie before. With this in mind, they really do a good job, even if as already stated only Tatsuya Naka manages to pull off an impressive performance. Moreover, the three main actors all have a black belt in Karate, naturally, which makes the numerous fights look very natural and clean in execution. They stand out with very distinctive realism and are very impressive with their swiftness and directness. Consequently, the fights are never really long, yet they are scattered throughout the film in a good relation. The last inevitable showdown is shot in black and white. Reasons for that can be found if you want to, but still, all of those reasons seem a bit too far-fetched. Especially in a film like "Black Belt", which impresses with its simple, yet wonderful pictures, this gimmick only seems to be unnecessarily straining for effect.

Even though there is a lot of beautiful things to be found in "Black Belt", e.g. the philosophy of martial arts and some precious lessons, everything still seems too predictable. The audience is often lead to assume that there might be something secret, some sort of special message to be found between the lines, but that's not the case. "Black Belt" expresses what it wants to convey directly and is a bit disappointing because of that plainness. The plot itself also is everything but original, but at least the movie deserves some points for the fact that it takes place during the 30s, when Japan annexed Manchuria and continued marching north. However, there isn't really worked much on that level, and so "Black Belt" remains a movie that will receive a pleased nod from martial arts specialists and for others it might serve as some kind of little introduction to the subject. Anyway, it's not easy to give this movie a clear remmondation because of the obviousness of its message and the flat story.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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